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CMS Board Weighs How To Define Diversity At Magnets

Lisa Worf
The CMS board used green, yellow, and red paper to gauge thoughts on proposals for socio-economic diversity at magnets.

The CMS board is trying to break up concentrations of poverty in schools with a new student assignment plan. The board's first task is doing that in the district's magnet schools. The board met for four hours Tuesday to discuss proposals to present at a series of community meetings that start next week. Board members weighed a lot of options, but before they could even discuss them they had to get their heads around how to measure a student's socioeconomic status.  

WFAE's Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry to tell us more about the board's efforts:   

MT: So, Lisa, don't we already measure students' socioeconomic status?

LW: No. The district used to know whether students came from low-income families. That data was collected by the National School Lunch Program, which gave those students free or reduced-price lunches. There's been some changes to that program for various reasons and that information is no longer available. So when we talk about the percentages of poor kids at schools, it's based on numbers that are three years old and, as the board's student assignment consultants said last night, they're not an accurate measure of socioeconomic status.

MT: Why not?

LW: For one, it's only a measure of income and a rough measure of that too.

MT: So how is socioeconomic status different than income?

LW: Think about socioeconomic status a bit like class. You may not earn a lot, but if you have a college education, chances are you're middle or upper class because of your potential to earn. There's a lot of factors that go into socioeconomic status. It's important when it comes to education because, as numerous studies point out, those students with low socioeconomic status have more challenges learning.

MT: So how do school districts measure that?

LW: A lot of them don't. Those that do may consider, yes, income, but also family structure, the performance of nearby schools, whether the parents speak English, whether they own a home or rent, and what level of education they have.

MT: This all seems really complicated, so how would CMS even collect that information?

LW: If the board chose to do that, families would be asked to report those things themselves.

MT: Would they really give that information to CMS?

LW: The board's student assignment consultant thought they would. He likened enrolling in school to visiting the pediatrician's office for the first time. You fill out a lot of personal information so that the doctor has a better idea of how to help you. Now, if families didn't want to turn over this information, the district could always use census data to fill in most of those blanks. For example, when you enroll you give your address. The district could then go to census information to get some conglomerate idea of how people in that neighborhood would respond. 

MT: So exactly how diverse are the districts magnet programs right now?

LW: Based on those old numbers, a few are, but most aren't. And the idea is that making these schools more diverse socioeconomically could help remove some of the challenges schools with high concentrations of poverty have. For example, higher teacher turnover. 

MT: How did the board react to using all these measures to create more diversity in schools?

LW: The board's student assignment consultants presented these measures as options other districts had used that may make sense for CMS. The board largely listened. They seemed to agree if you want a complete picture of socioeconomic status, it may make sense to measure more factors. A couple board members said if you look purely at family structure or home ownership, that may be misleading. Board member Rhonda Lennon, pointed to herself, saying she's a single mother who for a long time rented and yet she considers her family middle class.  Measures to define socioeconomic status will be one of several broad proposals the board wants the public to weigh in at a series of meetings that start next week.